The most fundamental scale to learn is the chromatic scale. If you are a guitar player, you must know all 12 chromatic scale notes at each fret along the entire neck and on all 6 strings.
The chromatic scale is created by dividing the octave into 12 equal parts or notes and those 12 notes are the source for all other scales used to make music in Western music. I define the chromatic scale in detail and I have charts and scale shapes that will help you learn the scale on the guitar.
Chromatic scale notes & definition: What is a chromatic scale?
Before we define the chromatic scale and the notes in it, we need to define a few terms first: octave, frequency, and pitch.
What is pitch?
Pitch is how low or high a musical sound is. Think of a female opera singer who can sing a note at a very high pitch and break a wine glass. Barry White, on the other hand, sings at a much lower pitch.
What is frequency?
Frequency is a physics measurement of various repeating cycles. For example, if your heart beats 60 times per minute, then the frequency is 60 bpm. In music, it refers to the oscillations of the sound wave. Sorry for the science stuff. The higher the frequency, the higher the perceived pitch of the sound.
What is an octave?
An octave is the distance between two notes where the second note, or pitch, is double the frequency of the first note. That could also be half the frequency if the second note is an octave lower in pitch.
Think of an open E note and then a second E (notated E’) at the 12th fret. E to E’ is an octave. In this case, E would be 1 of the 12 chromatic notes that are between E and E’ at the 12 fret. So there another 11 notes in between E & E’ or any octave.
What is a chromatic scale?
The chromatic scale has all 12 possible pitches, or notes, within an octave that are used to make music. Or stated another way, when you divide an octave into twelve equal parts, the result is the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.
A lot of sites just put the definition of the chromatic scale in paragraph form. Let’s look at a bulleted list to get a better definition of the chromatic scale, its notes and what it is and is not. Below is an image of the chromatic scale in a 12-part circle.
What the chromatic scale is:
- The chromatic scale can start on any of the 12 notes. It includes every note from the starting pitch up to the octave.
- Seven of the 12 notes are named using the first 7 letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F & G. The remaining 5 notes use one of those 7 letters and adds the sharp (#) or flat (♭) symbol.
- There is a sharp or flat note between every 2 notes (letters) except for B to C and E to F.
- The notes of the chromatic scale are A, A# or B♭, B, C, C# or D♭, D, D# or E♭, E, F, F# or G♭, G, G# or A♭.
- Enharmonic equivalents are the sharp \ flat notes that have 2 names, e.g. A# and B♭ are the same note. You should write down the remaining enharmonic equivalents as practice.
- Each note in a chromatic scale is a half-step (1 fret) apart from its neighboring tones. Another term for a half-step is semi-tone. So 1 fret = 1 semi-tome = 1 half-step.
- All other scales are built from the notes in the chromatic scale.
- Every successive fret on the guitar is a different note of the chromatic scale until you reached a note 12 frets above (or below) your starting note \ pitch. The scale then repeats.
- 12 notes or frets on guitar completes the chromatic scale, and the 13th note \ fret is the 1st note one octave higher.
- The chromatic scale is a symmetrical scale – it’s always the same notes no matter how you play it.
- Finally, knowing the chromatic scale is absolutely essential if you play music.
What the chromatic scale is NOT:
- The chromatic scale does not have a root note or tonal center like other scales.
- No one uses the chromatic scale to make music through the use of chromatic runs are common.
- You do not use the chromatic scale to build chords.
You can say that there is only one chromatic scale or that there are 12 chromatic scales each starting on a different chromatic note. Both views are correct.
Chromatic Scale definition: The chromatic scale is the musical scale that has all 12 possible notes in it with each note separated by the distance of a half step, semitone or 1 fret on the guitar. It is the parent of all other scales.
Chromatic scale for guitar
Here are two images for the sharp and flat chromatic scale notes on the fretboard from the open strings down to the 12th fret.
There are a number of reasons to learn the chromatic scale on the guitar and the main one is to know ALL the notes on EVERY string.
You should first learn the notes from the open string all the way to the last fret on your guitar on each string. Then learn the chromatic notes from the low E string to the high E string (see examples below).
Learning the chromatic scale across strings shows you how the guitar is set up, which is important to know when learning intervals on the guitar.
The reasons to practice playing the chromatic scale are for warming-up, increasing speed and dexterity, and for coordination with your picking hand.
Ascending and descending chromatic scale
You need to learn the chromatic scale ascending to the octave and descending to the starting note.
The general practice is to use sharps when ascending and flats when descending, which is a great idea. But you should reverse that as well: ascending flats and descending sharps.
You should also write out a full chromatic scale starting and ending on each of the 12 notes. I showed you 5 with the fretboard images above (E, A, D, G, B). You should write out the remaining 7. It’s boring but it will imprint in your mind the order of the notes. Here are 4 versions starting with C:
Ascending sharps: C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B – C’
Ascending flats: C – D♭ – D – E♭ – E – F – G♭ – G – A♭ – A – B♭ – B – C’
Descending flats: C – B – B♭ – A – A♭ – G – G♭ – F – E – E♭ – D – D♭ – C’
Descending sharps: C – B – A# – A – G# – G – F# – F – E – D# – D – C# – C’
Chromatic scale practice for the guitar
Here is a scale pattern for a 2-octave chromatic scale and you could say that it is in A since you start at the 5th fret on the low E string. The numbers are the fingers to use fretting the notes: 1 is the index \ pointer, 2 is the middle, 3 is the ring and 4 is the pinky finger.
The black notes are the A notes (root) at the 5th fret on the E strings and the A at the 2nd fret of the G string. I added the 5th note on the high E string for the final A note. Note that you need to slide with your pinky for that last A on the high E string.
This is a nice chromatic scale run that shows how the notes, frets, and strings are related to the guitar neck. This scale run goes back towards the open strings.
Notice the other common augmented triad shape on the bottom 4 strings or strings 2 thru 5 – all the 1’s for example. And you can see the major 3rds going down strings for notes with the same finger.
Here is a 5 fret, two-octave chromatic scale that is contained in the E voicing position. You have to slide with your pinky for the last note on 5 of the 6 strings.
I also have a 3-octave chromatic scale run that spans 13 frets that involve 6 notes per string, although you have to slide with the index and pinky fingers to play a 6-note run.
If you want to try it, you need to slide with your index finger for the 1st and 2nd notes and with your pinky for the 5th and 6th notes.
Here is a 4-finger chromatic run for speed, dexterity, and coordination with your picking hand. Make sure to do alternate picking: down-up-down-up-etc.
Chromatic scale run guitar tab
Here is a tab version of the 4-finger chromatic scale run image above starting on A:
You should vary the pattern in every possible way and with 2 and 3-finger combinations. For example, start with 1-2-3-4 ascending, then 4-3-2-1 but also try 1-3-2-4, 3-4-1-2, etc. Then do 3 and 2 finger combinations like 1-3-4, 2-3-4, 2-3, 4-1, on and on.
The chromatic scale is the most fundamental scale. It contains all the notes that are used to create other scales, chords, and music in general.
Although it is boring, it is vital to learn every chromatic scale note on each string of your guitar. Also, make sure to use chromatic runs to increase your speed and to coordinate with your picking hand.
The next article is an interesting one. It’s all about intervals. Intervals create both scales and chords. It will be insightful if you are not familiar with all the possible intervals. If you want an overload on music theory, then check out the site Dolmetsch.
Keep learning, playing and writing music with your guitar!